Q&A: Catherine Chai, Singapore Based-Author of ‘From Bland to Brand’


Regional Asian brands often find themselves confronted with a twofold challenge: They need to stand out amongst the increasingly crowded field of local competitors while at the same time competing with their well-experienced Western counterparts.

In her recently released book, From Bland to Brand: The Essential Branding Handbook for Asian Businesses, Catherine Chai, Founder of Broc Consulting in Singapore seeks to offer a roadmap for breaking through the noise.

Read More: Q&A: Tribal’s Leo Tsui talks Digital, a Complicated Future and Finding Talent


 

Chai has been working as branding and marketing consultant for over 20 years, helping organizations develop their brands. In her book she attempts to encapsulate her experience in the most simplest form – free of branding industry jargon.

Catherine Chai recently spoke with Branding in Asia’s Nazhath Faheema from her office in Singapore.


Congratulations on publishing your book. What is the biggest takeaway you’d like readers to get from it?

I would like readers to know that building a strong brand does not happen by chance just like building a business. It is a function of strategic thinking, planning and committing to a course of action. And, the advice and worksheets in the book will provide a good guide towards that outcome.


 

Your brand consultancies name, BROC, was inspired by Broccoli. Can you tell us how that came about?

I started my career in the advertising industry conceptualising and executing brand communication campaigns. After which I went to the client side working for MNCs in brand management roles before I joined the brand consulting industry. Having worked on both sides, I realised that many business leaders have misconception about what branding is. Some think they have a new brand when they have a new logo, some think they have new ad campaigns so they are re-branded. In a nutshell, many think branding is about design and aesthetics.

Some business leaders do not think they need advice, they just need doers. I had a client who told me that he was reluctant to engage a brand consultant initially as he thinks a consultant is about, ‘borrowing your watch to tell you the time.’

They are important in the expression but if there’s no clarity in what the brand stands for, then the execution will be haphazard and disorganised. It’s like somebody trying to look good and think that liposuction or a new wardrobe is the best way, but are not committed to changing their poor eating habits or mindset.

I chose the name Broc because broccoli has the highest anti-oxidants in the vegetable group, in fact it is called a cancer-fighting food, it has fantastic health benefits. Just like Broccoli,  my company Broc is all about giving “health benefits” to company in the form of brand advisory & training. On a personal side, broccoli is the most frequently consumed vegetable in my family; my kids love it!

While on the topic of names, what should a company or an organization keep in mind when setting down the path to choosing the right name for their brand?

A Couple of things to start with – One, the name has a meaning and a story behind it which allows customers to connect to the brand beyond functional benefits.

Two, it can be a trademark in the markets you serve, it would be terrible if you spend so many resources in promoting your brand but yet you do not own it.

Three, if the brand will be travelling to other parts of the world, make sure it does not sound offensive or a negative association in those markets.

What is your overall take on the branding process in the region and where do you think it can improve?

It has changed quite a lot. There is a lot more awareness and knowledge on strategic branding now. The government, especially Singapore, has been very active in encouraging companies to build strong brands which is fantastic. The Singapore government is very generous in supporting home grown companies with grants for branding and marketing. In other parts of Asia such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong etc, we’ve also seen strong brands emerging.

When I was a university student more than 20 years ago, the word branding is probably a phrase briefly mentioned in my marketing textbook, now there are textbooks just dedicated to branding. Look at the book shelves and you’ll see just as many branding books versus marketing books.

There is a lot more awareness and knowledge on strategic branding now. The government, especially Singapore, has been very active in encouraging companies to build strong brands.

Like any country development, some countries are more “advanced” in the branding process whilst others are building up. Take for example Myanmar, I was recently invited to go there to run a workshop but was cautioned “you need to start at a very basic level, maybe marketing 101 versus branding 101”.

Other feedback I received is that my industry has a lot of jargon e.g. Brand Relevance, Brand Mantra, Brand Purpose, Brand Resonance, Brand Promise, Brand Philosophy etc., and all these terms can be very confusing to business leaders. I do hope we do not start our own “language” which only we as consultants can understand. After all we are serving the business community and they must understand what we mean. The legal industry is trying to simplify their “legal language” to make them more “reader & user-friendly”. We should not do the reverse and create more and more fanciful terminologies which can only confuse more and more people.

In your book you mentioned the untapped opportunity in Asia for ‘ingredient brands’. Can you talk about that? Why do you think Asia is lagging on ingredient brands such as Intel?

Talking to some business leaders, I realized that they do not think their “ingredient” has any USP. They treat them as commodity, which is a real pity.

Read More: Legendary Ad Man Suthisak Sucharittanonta talks Advertising, Nurturing Creativity, and the ‘Hybrid’ Future

Also, ingredient branding requires collaboration with other brands, which may seem to be a daunting task for some business leaders. Moreover in recent years, we do not see any success stories, so the “branding approach” may not come to mind immediately.

How about the pitch process for your firm? What are some of the difficulties in getting companies to take your advice?

Brand consulting always start with good insights, but some businesses are in such a hurry (which is not wrong) to launch that they want to skip the ‘advice” part and dive straight into creating brand image in the form of logo, website, etc.

I worked with medium size companies and MNCs who have done all their designs, advertising campaigns etc. They know brand building requires a robust brand strategy, so they are prepared to hire and listen to the professionals.  

I would like readers to know that building a strong brand does not happen by chance just like building a business. It is a function of strategic thinking, planning and committing to a course of action.

Some business leaders do not think they need advice, they just need doers. I had a client who told me that he was reluctant to engage a brand consultant initially as he thinks a consultant is about “borrowing your watch to tell you the time”, but he has since realised that it is not true.

Are there any brands out there that you’d like to work with that you think could use some help?

For me, it’s not the brands per se, but the people behind the brands. I love working with forward-looking business leaders who are ambitious and committed to action. I particularly enjoy working with family businesses and second/third generation business leaders who want to change and grow.

It has been a great privilege to be in this field. Whenever people ask me to describe the work I do, I like to explain in this way – “Brand consultancy is like somebody opening the doors to their homes and invite you to take a hard look. You get to see the living room area but as you gain their trust, you go deeper to see their private bedrooms and know their family members and relatives. You will soon find out about their habits, their relationship dynamics and their strengths and weaknesses” .

I have worked on brands from diverse industries such as Publishing, F&B, Education, Technology, Hospitality, Building & Construction, Health, Supply chain, FMCG etc. as well as non-profit and government sectors. In my previous company several years ago, I did a small project on nation branding with my ex-boss. I’ve yet to do this type of project, so it would be fantastic to get such an opportunity; maybe brand a new island, town or city, that will be a very good challenge.


You can find From Bland to Brand on Amazon. Photos courtesy of Catherine Chai.

Picture of Nazhath Faheema

Nazhath Faheema

Nazhath Faheema is a digital branding and marketing enthusiast based in Singapore.

Read More

subscribe & get more brand in your diet

newsletter

get more brand in your diet

We never share your info,
we only share ours